Brad’s Status (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Some reviews will claim that in order to have a complete appreciation for the whip-smart comedy “Brad’s Status,” written and directed by Mike White, one would have to be middle-aged because the topics it tackles requires considerable life experience. But I say anybody who constantly checks in with themselves will be able to connect with and enjoy the film for its searing honesty and ability to remain in touch with both the humor and the drama of a situation depending on one’s mood, personality, or general perspective when it comes to how life works. This film is clearly made for observant viewers.
The titular character, played by Ben Stiller, is most unhappy as of late because he constantly finds himself dreaming forward and regretting the past, rarely choosing to be present in the now, appreciating the great things in his life, and relishing what he has accomplished thus far. Although I do not relate to Brad’s suffering, despite his neuroses, I recognized this character right away: he is a colleague at work, a stranger walking down the street, a family member who puts on a fake smile during reunions. I empathized with him, but I did not feel sorry for him. The material is interested in dissecting differences between seemingly similar emotions.
Stiller fits the role like a glove. Observe how he expertly navigates a series of thoughts and feelings, often in one sitting and in quick successions, that run across Brad’s face. Couple the performer’s craft with an energetic screenplay that courageously combines daydreams, flashbacks, and scalding reality in a blender, what results is a highly watchable, entertaining, and surprisingly insightful look at a privileged man who has everything he needs yet still finds himself wanting for more. He doesn’t exactly know why he craves more, it’s just that he does.
He claims he is envious of his former college friends (Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Mike White) because they possess power, ludicrous amount money, women, and fame, but notice how Brad, someone so detail-oriented when it comes to his yearnings, fails to describe what he would actually do if he acquired such things. Why is this man creating the pandemonium in his mind? Does he find pleasure in putting himself through mental agony? Does he have a mood or mental disorder? Is it his way of coping with the fact that his son (Austin Abrams), a gifted musician, is soon moving away for university? I enjoyed that the writer-director is not afraid to introduce possibilities thereby making the work layered, consistently worthy of exploration from different angles.
Perhaps the best moments in this sharp and humane film involve the father looking at his son and weighing whether the boy in front of him would become competition, whether the boy would eventually make him feel small, insignificant, like a loser—just like the way his former friends “made” him feel throughout the years. It is during moments like these that “Brad’s Status” is at its bravest and most uncomfortable—which makes it so worthy of our time because it forces us to look inwards, recognize, and perhaps even come to terms with some of our own monsters.
Paper Towns (2015)
★★ / ★★★★
Although Margo (Cara Delevingne) and Quentin (Nat Wolff) were close as children, they’ve grown apart over the years. That is why Quentin is most surprised when Margo sneaks into his bedroom one night and asks if she could borrow his car. Over the next couple of hours, they pull various pranks—payback for Margo’s ex-boyfriend cheating on her and those who have been aware of the fact but kept it a secret. The next morning, Margo is nowhere to be found. Her parents believe she had simply ran away—yet again—but Quentin feels it in his gut that she wants to be found by him.
“Paper Towns,” directed by Jake Schreier, offers a handful of good moments, especially the interactions among Quentin and his two best friends (Austin Abrams, Justice Smith), but it feels as though there are many character and circumstantial details that are missing. As a result, although it has lessons to impart about the idea of romance and growing up, most of them are reduced to platitudes. Specific details make dramatic pictures interesting but this one is mired in generalities.
For example, not a lot of time is spent exploring why Quentin feels such a deep connection to Margo. He goes on a blind mission to look for clues she left prior to her disappearance but the question as to why is he so invested in finding her is not answered in a compelling way. Are we supposed to just believe that since they spent a couple of hours together, even though they never interacted in school, that it is enough for an intelligent, good-natured teenager with a bright future to risk so much for her? Perhaps. And if so, that makes him quite a one-dimensional protagonist.
The investigation itself is not executed in an interesting way. We simply wait for the plot to make a turn so that the main character has something to go on and the story can move forward. In between are moments of humor shared by the three best friends, particularly the pressures of prom looming just ahead. They are awkward socially but we understand right away why they share a tangible camaraderie. One can make a case that this is the film’s strongest point.
But I argue that material’s final twenty minutes, aside from the final scene, is the standout. There is a practicality, realism, and honesty in the dialogue that many romantic movies targeted for teenagers—and adults—dare not be in the vicinity of, let alone touch. If the screenplay by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber had been sharper by focusing more on providing specific details during the first half, the impact of the words and actions shared would have been devastating. Ultimately, the final product makes an impression but it offers nothing memorable.
Based on the novel by John Green, “Paper Towns” is a thoughtful teen movie about learning to move past one’s comfort zone. However, it is not a fully realized piece of work, especially in its dissection of ideation versus reality from a romantic point of view, because the execution from paper to action comes across as shallow and at times frivolous.